Monday, 16 February 2009

Liverpool to Chelsea, Manchester United to Spurs, West Brom to Stoke - who'd be a manager?

Football is full of half-finished sentences and unanswered questions. There are times when the Premier League would just love a full stop - even a punctuation mark. When a referee allows a dodgy goal or a player loses his rag, it is best to leave things hanging in the air.
Take for instance the FA Cup fourth-round replay between Liverpool and Everton. With minutes to go in the match and the game finely balanced, Everton launched one final attack. ITV viewers were then treated to the bizarre spectacle of an advert break at the wrong time. Now we all know about the importance of timing in sport but this was rather like interrupting Gilbert and Sullivan with the Coldstream Guards. Totally inappropriate, you might say.
At the top of the Premier League, managers are frequently questioned for both their timing and behaviour. Only a couple of weeks ago Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez put his ugliest foot in it with an inflammatory remark about Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson and vice versa. Apparently Fergie thought the time was ripe for a spot of verbal jousting.
Now the story so far is that Liverpool have made their Premier League title bid emphatically clear and Fergie, of course, is quite clearly on the warpath. Sir Alex, as many of us know, is renowned for his cunning mind games but for Benitez this had gone far enough. Ferguson apparently made a childishly spiteful remark about the wisdom of signing Robbie Keane and Benitez took immediate offence.
It was at this point that the gloves went on, Fergie spat out his chewing gum and the air became blue with good old-fashioned Anglo Saxon fury. When Sir Alex Ferguson buttons up his black coat and gums up for the afternoon, it is safe to assume that all animals are safely protected. He shoves his hands in his pockets, gazes threateningly at the referee and then considers legal action.
Both Ferguson and Benitez are classic examples of men with a proverbial chip on the shoulder. It would be unfair to say that both men suffer from a persecution complex. But when the tension reaches boiling point and the stakes are at their highest, both seem to revert to a frustrated childhood. The accusations fly, and both end up in tears.
To all outward apperances, Benitez has been the calm and rational one who would rather keep out of the limelight. He stands on the touchline in the warmest of tracksuits, pointing and gesturing at his players and then shuffling his shoes. Benitez may look as if he's waiting for a bus but then Liverpool have been waiting 19 years for a League title so impatience is perfectly understandable.
Behind the pacesetters are Aston Villa and Martin O'Neill. For Villa a place in the top four is new territory this decade so O'Neill does seem to be gate-crashing the party. At no point during any Premier League match does the Villa manager seem to stand still or sit down.
He nervously twitches on the balls of his feet, a picture of anxiety and curiosity. When Villa score and the crowd explode, O'Neill jumps 4 feet into the air in celebration, punches his fists with delight and then just congratulates himself.
For Luiz Felipe Scolari, the world according to Chelsea proved a deeply unpleasant one. He was never the tormented and anguished Jose Mourinho where every match was a horrible ordeal. Whereas Mourinho seemed to hate everybody and everything, Senor Scolari was a smouldering Brazilian volcano ready to blow. In the heat of action he became cold and emotionless, only letting himself go when Frank Lampard crossed the half-way line.

At the other end of the Premier League, life for new Spurs boss Harry Redknapp is all worry and restless animation. From the moment happy Harry, formerly of Portsmouth and West Ham, walked into White Hart Lane, every day has come with a government health warning. In his thickly padded top, Redknapp often looks as though he's being tortured with red-hot pokers. He throws his head to one side when things go wrong, flings his hands in front of his face in utter exasperation and then asks his wife to play up front.
Last but not least, there are the men who just fold their arms, hoping and waiting for something to turn up. Tony Pulis is the helpless manager of Stoke City, baseball cap on his head, smart and upright and yet resigned to his fate. Perhaps Stoke will be relegated or maybe they won't.
There is the immaculately shirt-and-tied Tony Mowbray, who probably wishes he hadn't been offered the West Brom job. Mowbray looks like a grim trade unionist who only smiles on a Tuesday afternoon.
There you have it, then. Premier League bosses really do have to suffer for their art. When the whistle goes and players kick off, theirs is the kind of job only the foolish and deluded would take.
It is undoubtedly one of the most thankless and unenviable jobs of all. It is 90 minutes of joy, heartbreak, endless toil and drudgery. When the pressure reaches its most intense and the wealthy chairmen demand their ounce of flesh and blood, it is quite simply no place for the faint hearted.
Anyone for tennis?
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